V isual art from Japan, in all its myriad forms, has captured global attention and fervour for years. We need not look any further than our own childhood and journey into adulthood for examples. Starting from the ubiquitous face of Hello Kitty that we wanted on all our stationery, to manga art in cartoons and comic books and the whimsical illustrations by Hayao Miyazaki in animated films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro.
More recently, the mesmerising installations by TeamLab and the polka dot-covered creations of Yayoi Kusama, have become icons of the 21st century, instantly recognisable from a mile away. Meanwhile, in the realm of home décor, our childhood penchant for making origami from patterned paper gave way to marvelling at traditional ikebana flower arrangements, and the philosophical meaning behind style principles such as wabi-sabi and kintsugi.
And when it comes to contemporary Japanese art and how it came to produce global household names such as Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, its roots can be traced back to the Meiji period (1868-1912). Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan started interacting with the rest of the world again. During such time, the Japanese population was exposed to Western art and culture. Fast forward to the post-war era of the late 1940s and 1950s, Japanese artists started experimenting with more radical styles, and it was during the 1980s when the world started taking notice of Japan’s contemporary art scene.
The 1990s was a milestone period for contemporary Japanese art. Murakami started exhibiting his work, influenced by the two-dimensional style of anime and manga. Both aesthetics combined to create paintings with no depth and done in striking colours – a showcase of the Japanese kawaii aesthetic to great effect. Murakami’s signature style came to be known as ‘Superflat’ and became an art movement in itself. So influential is Murakami that he is frequently referred to as the Japanese Andy Warhol. In 2005, he collaborated with fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who was the artistic director at Louis Vuitton at the time, to produce a limited-edition collection of handbags and other accessories adorned with his art.
Murakami had a protégé for 20 years, an artist who is based in Saitama and goes by the pseudonym MR. His art follows the aesthetic of Superflat, featuring Japanese girls drawn in anime style, and after honing his craft with Murakami, MR. went on to exhibit his work in cities around the world, including in Hong Kong, Paris, Seoul, and New York.
Kusama, also gained attention for her work in the 1990s, even though she moved to New York City in 1957 and had been producing art even prior. It was during the early years of the 21st century when her fame skyrocketed to the stratosphere. The Guardian ran an article with the headline: "Yayoi Kusama: the world’s favourite artist?" in 2018, sharing that her exhibitions around the world had attracted more than five million visitors at the time of the article. Kusama is mostly known for her paintings, sculptures and installations that delve into autobiographical or psychological themes to create famous artworks such as her pumpkins covered in polka dots or her Infinity Mirror Rooms and Infinity Net paintings. Like Murakami, Kusama also collaborated with Louis Vuitton to create a limited-edition collection, and so iconic is her status that she now has her own museum – the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Shinjuku, Tokyo, that is run by the Yayoi Kusama Foundation.
Nara is yet another artist who helped propelled Japan’s pop art movement onto the global stage during the 1990s. Nara’s art is a play in contrasts, featuring children or animals done in soft, painterly colours that looks both cute and menacing at the same time – depicting the complex range of emotions from a child that any parent is all too familiar with. This juxtaposition leads to intriguing artworks that amassed a cult fan base and regularly commands a price in the US million-dollar range at auctions, such as Frog Girl (1998), which was sold for over US$12.5 million in 2021 by Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
Human emotions are also the driving influence behind Chiharu Shiota’s work. Shiota is known for her large installations constructed from fine threads that take up an entire room. Her installations are compelling yet promote a sense of uneasiness, with the delicate thread used in multiple ways to depict a gamut of emotions. In 2019, "The Soul Trembles" – the largest exhibition in Shiota’s career to date – launched in Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. Curated by Mori Art Museum Director, Mami Kataoka, the exhibition has since been touring cities around the world, from Shanghai, Busan, and Taipei to Brisbane, and most recently, Jakarta.
Brooklyn-based Tomokazu Matsuyama was born in Japan and moved to New York to study at the Pratt Institute. The time spent in both countries has provided food for thought about cultural identities for his work. Matsuyama likes to combine Eastern and Western aesthetics, pairing pop art and manga with traditional styles from Japan’s Edo and Meiji periods. His paintings are often done on an irregular shaped canvas, with some bearing resemblance to the shape of ancient Japanese scrolls. His works are included in the permanent collection of museums such as LACMA in Los Angeles, as well as in the art collections of corporate companies such as Microsoft and Toyota.
With centuries of traditional art to glean from, as well as a history of producing pop art that gained a global following long before the days of Instagram, it is no surprise that Japanese contemporary art continues to draw in and surprise an international audience.